BOSTON (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney, who dropped out of the U.S. presidential race a week ago, endorsed one-time rival John McCain on Thursday and asked his supporters to rally behind the Arizona senator.
Romney and McCain had tangled bitterly during the campaign as they fought for their party’s nomination and Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, attracted many of the party’s conservative base to his side.
“Things can get pretty rough in a political campaign. In the thick of the fight it’s easy to lose sight of your opponent’s finer qualities. But the truth of the matter is that in the case of Sen. McCain I could never quite do that,” Romney told a joint news conference with McCain in Boston.
After a string of losses, Romney dropped out of the race last Thursday saying it would be best to unify the party to prepare for a tough general election battle against either of the two Democratic candidates, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
“I still have my views. The senator has his views. But as a party we come together,” Romney said. “Right now the Democrats are fighting. Let’s us come together and make progress while they are fighting.”
Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and libertarian-minded Texas Rep. Ron Paul remain as McCain’s rivals in the Republican race. But McCain effectively locked up the nomination last week when Romney pulled out and is far ahead in the race for delegates to the Republican nominating convention in September.
McCain said he would draw on Romney’s staff and organization, and that Romney would travel around the country to help both his campaign and Republican congressional candidates facing tough races in November’s election.
“I’m grateful that he ran a hard, tough and frankly a campaign that helped me become a better candidate,” McCain said, adding that having Romney as an ally would be a “vital ingredient” for beating the Democratic nominee in November.
The cordial tone is in stark contrast to the sniping and hostility between the two on the campaign trail. Last month, McCain likened tangling with Romney to “a wrestling match with a pig,” saying such a confrontation should be avoided.
“You both get dirty, and the pig likes it,” he said.
Romney, a multimillionaire former venture capitalist who cast himself as a Washington outsider, often challenged McCain’s conservative credentials, at times dismissing him as a “liberal” -- a harsh smear among conservative Republicans.
The two clashed over McCain’s signature legislation on energy, immigration and campaign finance reform. McCain portrayed Romney as a flip-flopper on hot-button issues ranging from gun control to abortion and the war in Iraq.
“Now we move forward for the good of our party and the nation,” McCain told Thursday’s news conference, describing Romney’s bid for the White House as a “fine, intensive honorable campaign”.
(Writing by Jason Szep. Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Stuart Grudgings)